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Of Lords, aunts and pigs

Renewing one's acquaintance with Wodehouse is not unlike the timely pick-me-up administered by Jeeves to Bertie on the morning after the bender in town.

For the last few days, P.G. Wodehouse has been happening to me. I mean to say, I knew I was around all these years, sitting sagely on that treasured shelf, smiling his genial knowing smile and smoking his pipe. Every once in a while, when the heart would be inordinately burdened, he would push across one of his books. I would read a few pages reverently and having achieved instant relief from the moment's predicament would put it back gently and gratefully. But of late, I seem to find him at every corner, whispering “pssst” as I go past or what-ho-ing to me across crowded streets. The Master is insistent on renewing our acquaintance. It's been too long, he seems to say. Or perhaps it's just his way of removing any dark shadow that may hover momentarily over his fans — the timely pick-me-up, not unlike the one administered by Jeeves to Bertie on the morning after the bender in town. So he's been turning up at unexpected times in the least expected places until it has begun to feel like the old times, when he would constantly be in my bag, or under my pillow, guiding me through his wondrous world of pigs and Lords, butlers and goofs, aunts and country houses.

First, it was this cricket book; Wodehouse at the Wicket. No connection with this IPL business. Wodehouse would have frowned at the dashed thing — the absence of white and the over-abundance of chorus-girls, or what passes for chorus girls these days — would have been enough to send him tut-tutting all the way back to the pavilion. The book was thoughtfully slipped into my bag by my son before a flight, having tired of pushing sci-fi or fantasy tomes which he now knows I have neither the mind to read nor the heart to refuse. This one was a winner; a better way to spend five hours in a transit lounge has not been invented. Murray Hedgcock, the cricket historian, has put together several of Wodehouse's cricket tales and, in a perceptive introduction, has traced the writer's lifelong deep passion for the game.

Primarily a fast bowler and a doubtful bat, often batting at number ten and scoring regulation ducks, Wodehouse played for the Dulwich team, including against the MCC. Post his school years, he would often take the P.G. Wodehouse XI to play against his old school and engage in some light-hearted cricket but he had already moved from playing to writing about the game, including books known to our generation as Mike at Wrykin and Mike and Psmith, which first appeared under different titles. Yet he played as many as six times at Lord's when the venue was made available for modest-level matches such as Authors vs. Actors, the authors team being captained by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In another match the Authors played against Publishers (imagine that: take that bouncer for the missed royalty cheque!) The most invaluable nugget contained in the book traces the origin of the name Jeeves to Percy Jeeves, a Warwickshire professional cricketer known for his impeccable grooming, smart shirts and spotlessly clean flannels. Wodehouse probably saw him take a couple of smooth, effortless catches in a match between Gloucestershire and Warwickshire. The name, the immaculate appearance and silent efficiency stuck and the inimitable manservant appeared first in 1916, just weeks after the original Percy Jeeves died in the war in France.

Then I chanced upon the Paris Review interviews, a long-running series of leisurely, in-depth interviews with writers through the decades. The Review caught up with Wodehouse when he was “ninety-one and a half,” as he pointed out to the interviewer. He had just finished Bachelors Anonymous and was thrilled to bits with it, wondering how he would ever top it. He didn't want to end up like Bernard Shaw, turning out awful stuff in his nineties. Shaw, incidentally, knew that the stuff was awful, but couldn't stop writing. Wodehouse felt he had slowed down a bit, doing only a thousand words a day, finishing a novel in six or seven months. The interview reveals the hard work behind the seemingly effortless, breezy final product: 400 pages of notes for each book, detailed plot and scene construction, endless revision, morning to evening, seven days a week. Again, several gems turn up: Psmith was the only major character taken from real life; Galahad was a sort of grown-up Psmith; Jeeves was intended for one-time use with two speaking lines.

Wodehouse comes across as a man totally happy with the writer's life. “I know I was writing stories when I was five,” he says. “I don't remember what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose.” In fact he did nothing else but write except for a short stint at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank where the “idea of going to Bombay or somewhere and being a branch manager and being paid in rupees” scared him stiff and he left after, of course, having written a story in a new bank ledger. There were the early struggles of literary life when the wolf was always at the door and he felt that he was being constantly chased by “little men with black beards”. But soon the Saturday Evening Post accepted to serialise Something New for $3500 and the cash register rang louder and louder after that. We also learn that he carefully read all his reviews, enjoyed other humorists like Perelman and Thurber and thought that Somerset Maugham was constantly unhappy and unpleasant.

Scarcely had I finished reading the interview that a book of literary anecdotes came to hand. Here I must admit I looked for Wodehouse and found this delightful snippet. An old lady sitting next to him at dinner raved about his work and told him how her sons had piles of his books and read each one as it came out. Then she chirped: “And when I tell them that I have actually been sitting at dinner with Edgar Wallace, I don't know what they will say.”

And finally, there is this life-saver, an internet resource called the Random Wodehouse Quote Generator brought to you by none other than the Drones Club. It pops out one Wodehouse quotation at a time. Take one per day, preferably on an empty stomach, and the world will look a much happier place. This is the one I drew this morning: “Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad.”

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